One Question Quiz
Cyclone Gabrielle barrels towards Aotearoa in February 2023 (via
Cyclone Gabrielle barrels towards Aotearoa in February 2023 (via

OPINIONPoliticsFebruary 17, 2023

The political fault lines exposed by Cyclone Gabrielle

Cyclone Gabrielle barrels towards Aotearoa in February 2023 (via
Cyclone Gabrielle barrels towards Aotearoa in February 2023 (via

In election year, the same old repair-and-rebuild routine clearly will not cut it.

After a breakneck, brutal – and, for many, catastrophic – start to 2023, on top of a turbulent, draining few years, New Zealand staggers towards the back end of February with bludgeoned nerve endings and a daunting to-do list. The ongoing response and the faultlines exposed, critical questions that have been unearthed, intensified or expedited by the disaster, will dominate our politics for some time, both in parliament as it resumes next week and in communities across the country.

The response, assessed

In time there will be an inquiry. The first two declarations of a state of national emergency in New Zealand’s history – after the Christchurch earthquake in 2011 and the Covid crisis in 2020 – were eventually followed by the appointment of royal commissions, and there is a case for another here. 

As well as highlighting the heroic efforts of so many people in the midst and aftermath of the storm, the questions it must tackle include the preparedness and communications as Gabrielle stared us down, the pace and coherence of the early response, whether the state of national emergency was declared swiftly enough, and a host of other matters, such as: how on earth was there not a ready-to-go system for sharing information with distressed loved ones about the welfare of those in communities isolated for transport, power and communications? 

It needn’t and won’t wait for an inquiry, of course. However tentative the opposition might be about getting cast as non-team-players, their job is to hold the government to account; their scrutiny should be welcomed. As should the analysis of scientists, engineers, experts. 

But it will all lead to a deeper question: do we need to rethink the way we build the connective tissue of the country? 

Flooded cars near Mount Smart Stadium.
Flooded cars near the cancelled Elton John concert, Mount Smart Stadium, January 27, 2023. (Photo: supplied)

Adaptation, resilience and rebuild

Even in the white heat of the recovery, it could not be more obvious that a lot has to change. Not just what we build but the whole way of thinking about it. Resilience is not a new concept, and has only grown in focus after the Christchurch and Kaikōura earthquakes and as climate change exacerbates severe weather threats, but it must now be front and centre. 

Roads and transport networks. The electricity grid. The communications lattice, upon which so much, including our predominant means of commerce, Eftpos, depends. “We need to look at the resilience of our infrastructure,” said Chris Hipkins after viewing some of the devastation in Tairāwhiti first hand. “And we need to do that with a much greater sense of urgency than we have ever seen before … It is going to be expensive.” 

It is, but to do otherwise would be more costly. “It is high time,” said engineering academic Sandeeka Mannakkara yesterday, “that we as a country move away from reactive responses to natural hazard events and adopt a proactive approach, to break away from the post-event ‘repair and rebuild’ cycle.” 

Part of that rethink is moving more seriously and urgently on difficult conversations about managed retreat. Difficult but essential. Who is to say that the cyclone children of Gabrielle won’t be 20%, 30%, 40% worse, that they won’t blast a major city?

Extent of flooding in Wairoa surveyed from the air, February 15, 2023. (Photo: Hawke’s Bay Civil Defence Emergency Management Group)

Climate change mitigation

Climate change exacts two critical influences as far as severe weather episodes are concerned. It makes them more frequent. And it makes them more vicious. Too often, that relationship seems vague and ephemeral, but scientists are getting better and faster at putting a number on it, in the form of “event attribution”.

A visceral, angry speech in parliament by James Shaw this week caught a mood. “I have to say, as I stand here today, I struggle to find words to express what I am thinking and feeling about this particular crisis,” he said. “I don’t think I’ve ever felt as sad or as angry about the lost decades that we spent bickering and arguing about whether climate change was real or not, whether it was caused by humans or not, whether it was bad or not, whether we should do something about it or not, because it is clearly here now, and if we do not act, it will get worse.”

He quoted a pre-war Winston Churchill. “The era of procrastination, of half measures, of soothing and baffling expedience of delays, is coming to its close. In its place we are entering a period of consequences.” Then he said: “And there will be people who say, you know – just as the National Rifle Association in the United States does about shootings over there – it’s ‘too soon’ to talk about these things, but we are standing in it right now. This is a climate change-related event. The severity of it, of course, made worse by the fact that our global temperatures have already increased by 1.1 degrees. We need to stop making excuses for inaction. We cannot put our heads in the sand when the beach is flooding.”

That carries a criticism, unavoidably, of the government of which Shaw is a part and the minister for climate change, who is, well, James Shaw. Signs of renewed cross-party collaboration on climate change (albeit more adaptation than mitigation at this point) are encouraging. That will only grow if the public sentiment demands it. 

Thoughts and prayers won’t do. 

Te Atatū locals assist efforts to clear a tree that fell during Cyclone Gabrielle on Monday night, bringing down power lines and blocking the road. (Photo: Toby Manhire)

The economic imperatives

To repeat: It is going to be expensive. Election year had been gearing up as a race to the small centre, the battle of the bread and butter. The challenges faced now are absolutely about the basics, but they’re the opposite of small, and the implications for just about every part of the economy are immense. Grant Robertson will be revisiting early drafts of the budget, set to be delivered in May. When he gives his annual scene-setting speech to the Auckland Chamber of Commerce today, we’ll get the first real hint of whether the government has the stomach to go big.

The Reserve Bank faces pressure, too, with the Monetary Policy Committee deciding next week whether to pursue its plan to keep hiking interest rates to battle inflation. “The RBNZ should pause next week, as we deal with the devastating impact of Cyclone Gabrielle,” was the view from Kiwibank economists yesterday. “The RBNZ can come back in April and resume tightening if required. Talk of a 50bp, or even 75bp, hike should be sidelined.”

Forestry waste (slash) in flooded part of Hawke’s Bay (Photo: Royal New Zealand Air Force)

The slash obscenity

Across the east, the storm propelled tonnes of woody debris down flooded rivers. “Like a torpedo”, the slash knocked out bridges, smashed up farm land, and it was completely predictable

“I can’t think of another sector or business which is allowed to deal with its waste the way it does, where costs get socialised out to the community,” said Chrisopher Luxon of forestry. Chris Hipkins agreed, saying, “It is time for us to do something more serious.”

They’re right, of course, but implicit in those positions is an admission that governments of both stripes have utterly failed to do enough to tame and hold accountable the forestry industry. 

Local government

With tensions between local and central government still raw, another “absolute shambles” in voter turnout at council elections, and a draft review of local government in the mix, the impacts of Gabrielle across the North Island lay bare both the limits and potential of local government. Limits, in their resources and capacity to deal with the detritus. Potential, in their essential place in speaking to and understanding different communities. Leadership, too. If at times during the last campaign there was a sense of who-cares-who’s-mayor, the value of a strong, determined, curious, articulate, engaged, empathetic leader has been made very clear in recent days.

Election year

It is increasingly clear that Gabrielle will be a central character in the election of 2023, barrelling big, uncomfortable, critical questions – those sketched above and more – to the fore. So it should be. Those who have suffered so horribly from the cyclone, and those who might suffer in the next one, deserve nothing less.

Keep going!